Lisa's Sex Strike @ Lakeside Arts Centre
Nottingham University has a very nice little Arts Centre, which played host to this week’s production of Lisa’s Sex Strike by Northern Broadsides. It’s not as big as Warwick’s, but fairly classy and the theatre is cosy, a perfect venue for tonight’s production, one of the most purely enjoyable plays I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time.
Lisa’s Sex Strike, a new commission by Blake Morrison for Northern Broadsides, is a retelling of Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata. In a Northern mill town the men are caught up in race riots and street violence. Lisa galvanises the housewives of the town to withold sex from their husbands, and also to occupy the factory which employs most of the men in the town. Deprived of money and sex, the men quickly find themselves more than willing to settle their differences. But while in the factory, the women find that their men are creating parts to feed the arms trade, and have to tackle the factory owner, a man far more concerned with profit than conscience.
It may sound tenuous, but in practice the idea worked beautifully. There was no attempt to naturalise the contrived setup- the characters were largely Northern caricatures (one woman in particular being highly reminiscent of the chicken in Chicken Run that always has her knitting with her) who spoke in clever rhyming couplets. Morrison’s skill at writing for Lancs/Yorkshire accents was immediately apparent, rhyming words such as ‘owners’ and ‘bonus’ to create a clever verse that was both funny and entirely appropriate for the classical parody.
Perhaps unexpectedly, this was also a musical. From the opening number, where the men chanted football insults at each other before going into refrains of “Eh up chuck”, the play bounced from tune to tune- a Chicago inspired burlesque finale, a chipper village bobby tune for the police and a full on jazz blues number for one woman struggling with the sex strike. The songs showcased the varied talents of the cast, who provided all the music, while also ensuring the show retained the irreverent feel that kept it firmly on the right side of satire, never allowing the issues to turn, as the director later put it, the comedy into a tragedy.
The playfulness of the script and direction meant it never became boring. The second act was dominated, in more ways than one, by the huge erect red phalluses donned by the men in their sexual frustration, culminating in an hysterical set-piece as the penises lined up and sang a song to the tune of Monty Python’s Universe Song, even singing backing vocals. The presence of two gods, War and Peace, lent the play a further surreal feel as they played out their centuries-long struggle as a backdrop to the main action. The play veered slightly further towards earnestness towards the end, as evil factory owner Prutt was forced to live through the traumatic experiences of soldiers in the Iraq war, but this was relieved by his final appearance with a phallus that fired off explosions into the audience.
The performances were excellent all round. The men in particular excelled as a group, the ridiculous village bobbies being a particular comic highlight. Barrie Rutter and Eve Polycarpou as the two gods brought a maturer comedy that sat well against the energetic farce of the rest of the company. Most importantly, though, everyone on stage seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, tipping a wink to the audience as they performed. I’ve never seen Northern Broadsides before, but this production had a distinctly community feel, partly due to the size of the venue but mostly down to the sheer affability of the performers. The comedy may not have been the most sophisticated (I refer again to the singing penises) but it was impossible not to be tickled by the cast’s good-humoured approach.
In all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and a timely reminder that theatre can still have a powerful impact without being po-faced. Truly life-affirming.